Mastodon: A Social Network For All Humans

We don’t need more social networks. We need a communication tool. Check out Mastodon, an inclusive place for people.

Every startup wants to be the next Facebook. The appeal of Facebook is their user base, roughly 1.79 billion users a month. If you advertise to users, sell the data or do both, you’ll be rich enough to buy your neighborhood. However, what if you set out to make a communications platform without the ulterior motive of fortune? It’s called Mastodon and what I have seen so far is magical.

What Is Mastodon?

There’s a small chance you’re already on the new social network. In 2008 there was a micro-blogging social network called StatusNet. This open source project spun into a number of roll your own, decentralized services. Some public servers like Identi.ca and quitter.is popped up for those of us without the resources to run our own. Eventually, StatusNet became GNU Social, part of the GNU Project. That project was started by programmer & activist Richard Stallman because he believes that software should be free & hackable so that we can control our devices as we see fit.

Mastodon is based on GNU Social, but built from the ground up. The developer told me, “I looked at the GNU social codebase and I was horrified. It is a php project in its worst form.” Personally, I’ve done very little coding, but most of my coding friends groan when someone says, “php.” Thus, I can somewhat empathize with the developer, Gargron. Of course, it’s really easy to understand why Mastodon was created. As the developer said, “You can’t really have a higher level of personal customization than making it entirely yourself 🙂 So it fits my needs in every way.”

I surprise myself describing the new social network as magical, because as I grow older it becomes harder to keep the pessimism at bay. Yet, Mastodon is a really wonderful place to be. Sure, it’s typical to experience giddiness at the beginning of a new service launch. A large amount of people participating in a new shared adventure is always emotional. This is why we still go to movie theaters, despite our expensive home entertainment centers. There a few things that make Mastodon different.

Gargron

I reached out to the new community on Mastodon to find out why they joined and a number of people pointed to the passion of the project’s developer Eugen, a.k.a. Gargron. He’s responsive with changes, upgrade ideas and doesn’t stand for hate speech on his server. Some think banning people is a bit authoritarian, but there’s nothing stopping those people from starting their own server using Mastodon or GNU Social. When was the last time the founder of Twitter or Zuckerberg chatted you up?

Eugen, a.k.a. Gargron, recently graduated university with a computer science degree. At the moment, freelance web development is his gig, aside from the money he gets from patrons of Mastodon. As far as his ban hammer, Eugen admits, “abuse is a difficult topic and I can understand that at Twitter’s scale it’s extremely complicated.” Previously, Eugen ran a forum with 20,000 users. From that experience he learned that he had to be clear and vocal from the start. If you find yourself arguing & defending yourself as an administrator versus “problem” users, “things turn sour, ” says Eugen.

At the end of the day, the person whose name is on the hosting bills is me, I bear responsibility for it, and the full ownership. And as the owner, I decide what’s ok and what’s not ok to host on my platform. If you don’t like that, you can take the open source software that powers it, and run your own, that’s the beauty of it.

Perhaps I was being a troll myself, but I pushed Eugen to find out why he might ban someone using hateful language. He wisely said, “Trying to discredit their ideas in a fair fight accomplishes one thing – it gives them credibility. And the people wielding those ideas are not interested in fair fights.”

People

While GNU Social and its previous iterations have been around for a while, it feels like the time was right for Mastodon because people needed a safe space. The U.S. election campaign has been filled with voices of intolerance & hostility. Once a week, a new person in my Twitter feed pleads for the social media giant to do something about abuse on the platform. Thus, it is no surprise that when I asked people why they came to Mastodon, most of the answers revolved around tolerance.

It seemed a fair bit more open, more creative, and, importantly, a safer space for LGBTQIA folks, which, in this day and age? Seems very much needed. -Jamie Durbin, Jamie The D

In fact, I informally surveyed the public feed at Mastodon for a few hours and found that the majority of member profiles identified themselves as queer, trans, gender-fluid, non-binary or bi. Folks in the herd (pun intended) are largely artists and game developers, however those numbers were not as high as those who identified with the aforementioned gender types. The discovery brought me through a range of emotions. It was beautiful to see a space that (so far) is safe for all humans. Then, I was saddened that many people felt unsafe elsewhere. As a CIS white male, I know I’ve lived a privileged life. Therefore, I cannot begin to fully understand the discrimination and animosity others have experienced. All I can say is, “Let’s continue to make Mastodon an inclusive space.”

One way to be inclusive is to be open and collaborative and that’s what seems to be happening over at Mastodon. As one person put it, “It feels like Twitter did in 2007/2008.” People are interacting by assisting one another with game development problems, creating mobile apps for the platform and having conversations. In the early days of Twitter there was a similar vibe. Back then it was a an interesting API to play with and people were using it as a tool to create new ideas, not promote old ones. Of course, the “social marketing experts” are sure to find their way to Mastodon. It will be fascinating to see how the community adapts.

Mastodon timeline

Decentralized

The final bit of magic in Mastodon for me is the fact that it is decentralized. We’ve seen it plenty of times in the age of the startup: a company goes viral, cannot maintain the excitement or monetize and it goes under with all of your data. Sure, app.net is still there, but they couldn’t get enough cash out of users to continue to develop it. GNU Social is different. If you don’t like the Tweetdeck like interface of Mastodon, you can join the conversation from quitter.se. There are a ton of servers built on GNU Social, so you can find one you like or start your own instance. Rolling your own will only get easier in the future and that way you’re not dependant on Gargron to keep your data safe.

To me, the brighter promise of decentralization is attractive because it means a future where we can communicate freely. Email is a prime example, if you have a question, you can email questions@awkwardhuman.com from Google, Yahoo, your work email account or whatever you like. If I want to send your Gmail address an email, I don’t have to be a Gmail customer. Email is built on a communication protocol and it is not service specific like, say Snapchat. In order to see your snaps, I have to join Snapchat.

Decentralized services give power back to those of us online, a good point from Techcrunch. Though, as much as I don’t like the centralized services, we really need those larger entities to pour money into development. And, that cash has to come from somewhere. Even Eugen acknowledges this, “surely every instance [of Mastodon] admin would have to think about monetization at some point?” As far as Mastodon is concerned, Eugen isn’t looking to monetize beyond Patreon. “I’m extremely happy and grateful that people support me as much as they already do.”

Connecting & Respecting

If you’re interested in checking out Masodon.social, hit the link and join the conversation. Be sure to follow Gargron to stay in the loop. If you’re looking for mobile apps, things are just getting started. For folks on iOS, you can follow goldie_ice for updates on one app. Android users can check out jeroen smeets for their needs. Currently, you’ll need to register on the site, those apps are a way to connect to the community, but do not have signup capabilities.

Overall, I find Mastodon a real joy, but it does sadden me that people do not feel safe elsewhere. In the early days of the web, before social networks, we had forums. There were forums for everything, gardening, erotic fiction, fandom and more. Like AOL, Facebook & Twitter tried to encompass all users, rather than focus on a segment of people. Trends are cyclical and perhaps we’re headed for a return to smaller communities. The danger of that sort of segregation is surrounding yourself with like minded people and not being open to the world at large. Similar to the issues with the algorithms used on Facebook, Google and Twitter, we’re all in bubbles. I only hope that one day we can go back to the larger spaces and treat each other with respect.

Image courtesy of Eugen